On Nov. 16, Roman Catholics celebrate the feast of St. Margaret of Scotland, the queen whose devotion, charity and defense of the faith made her one of the land's patron saints.
Margaret was born around 1045, into an English royal line that had fled to Hungary after a Danish conquest caused them to lose power. Their new homeland had only recently accepted the Catholic faith, under the influence of King Stephen – later St. Stephen of Hungary – during the late 10th century.
Though the Hungarian royal saint died seven years before Margaret's birth, his legacy as a strong Catholic monarch probably shaped Margaret's vision of life as she grew up in the court over which he had recently presided. In 1057, at the request of King Edward the Confessor – another monarch later canonized by the Church as a saint – her family returned to England.
St. Edward's court was then experiencing a religious and cultural revival, which would also form Margaret's ideal of Catholic nobility as a force for the common good. But the king's death in 1066 brought a succession dispute in which Margaret's brother Eadgar lost out, causing the family to set sail for Hungary the following year.
But Margaret, her mother, and her siblings did not manage to return. Poor sailing weather forced them to land in the Scottish town of Dunfermline, home of the brutal warrior King Malcolm. He welcomed the family, and joined with Eadgar in making war on England's new French-descended Norman rulers.
When Margaret was 23, King Malcolm sought to marry her. The young woman said no, insisting that she wanted to become a nun. Eventually, however, his desire to unite the Celtic and Saxon royal lines won out, and they married in 1070.
Through the same spirit of devotion that might have made her a suitable nun, Margaret emerged as an exemplary Catholic queen. Her education, refinement, and faith made her a civilizing influence not only over King Malcolm, but over the entire country.
“The prudent queen directed all such things as it was fitting for her to regulate: the laws of the realm were administered by her counsel; by her care the influence of religion was extended and the people rejoiced in the prosperity of their affairs,” wrote her confessor and biographer and confessor, a monk named Turgot.
Within the Church, Margaret worked to restore liturgical beauty, moral order, and authentic Catholic teaching, in keeping with the disciplinary reforms of Pope Gregory VII. Margaret also succeeded in reforming her husband, who came to follow her example of charity and frequent prayer. Known as a strict but loving mother, she raised her eight children to keep God's commandments.
As for the queen herself, her confessor wrote that “of all living persons I know or have known she was the most devoted to prayer and fasting, to works of mercy and almsgiving.” Queen Margaret frequently served Christ through the daily personal aid she offered to poor people, orphans, and the elderly.
Queen Margaret's married life turned out well, but ended in sorrow. Her own last illness came during a war between Scotland and England, in which her husband and her oldest son both died.
Margaret heard the news from her second-oldest son, and afterwards declared: “All praise be to Thee, Almighty God, Who hast been pleased that I should endure such deep sorrow at my departing, and I trust that by means of this suffering it is Thy pleasure that I should be cleansed from some of the stains of my sins.”
Soon after receiving this news, St. Margaret of Scotland died on Nov. 16, 1093. Pope Innocent IV canonized her in 1249, and her relics were transferred to an elaborate shrine the following year. In 1560, a Protestant mob attacked the shrine, desecrating the site of St. Margaret's relics. A group of monks preserved the relics, which later ended up in Spain and France.
In response to a 1673 petition, Pope Clement X named St. Margaret a patroness of Scotland. She shares the honor with the land's historic patron, the Apostle St. Andrew.